My painful childhood experiences drove me to immerse myself in scripture. In fifth through seventh grades, I cloistered myself away in my closet of a room for up to three hours a day in our flimsy-walled green trailer. In my room, I’d lay down with my Bible and soak in visions of God elicited from my Bible reading. I was like Jacob at Bethel with visions of angels ascending and descending on the ladder to heaven. Only he was outside with a stone for a pillow.
Maybe behind closed doors I was called “trailer trash,” but no one ever said so to my face. When I wasn’t reading inside, I’d spend hours cutting and stacking wood with my younger brother and sister so our family could earn extra income. Although I lived a sheltered existence as a child, I benefited from a life full of solitude and silence and excursions into nature where I powerfully encountered the glory of God. We had fields and streams and woods all around us. Yet, I wasn’t so much sheltered by my parents as I was by the isolated geography and poverty that hemmed me in and that God ultimately used to incubate my soul.
My little closet room in the green trailer served as my first monastic cell. There is a story told about Abba Moses: In Scetis, a brother went to Moses to ask for advice. He said to him, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Indeed it has.
After chores, I’d escape to my room where I’d ravenously devour scripture. My life was a wilderness of pain that created an insatiable hunger for God. So I’d lay on my mattress and box spring (that’s all that could fit in the room) within the dimly-lit room and become a spectator in the scriptural arena. Other times, I was the person in the passage. I entered the narrative and the narrative entered me. And so I became pregnant with divine imagination. As I ruminated on the words of God, they implanted themselves deep within. When a situation called for me to practice or apply what I had learned, I did. There I learned that God cared for me, delivered me, and conversed with me like he did with those in scripture. In my cell, supposed theological sophistication hadn’t yet taught me to qualify what God could and couldn’t do.
My childhood wilderness is the place where I first learned to retire to my cell. It is also the place where I grew up in God. Now, I still carry on that childhood practice of retiring to my cell. And I still experience the greatest divine growth spurts deep in the wilderness, in midst of the wildest and mostly unwelcomed pain.
Do you have your own “wilderness cell”? What is that place like?
Have you experienced, as Abba Moses teaches, that the cell (small room or cave) teaches everything?
Marlena Graves (M.Div. Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY) is a by-lined writer for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics Blog and Gifted For Leadership Blog. She is grateful to have been a member of the Renovare Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. Her book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press), will be out in June of 2014.